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Toots and the Maytals, Slow Pulp, Hazel English, Sophie Ellis-Bexter and more.

Welcome to the weekly review of albums I've been listening to. Some are new. Others were new to me and may be a few or even many years old.

These judgements, as all judgements, are a matter of taste. It's personal and that means they have to address the likes of a 59 year old, white male whose tastes were formed in the melting pot of 70s chart pop and early 80s Gary Crowley and John Peel. I've kept up with current releases though the music press, review sites and numerous friends.

I like to share discoveries. It harks back to the days when you could stumble across a band you think, no know, are brilliant but who no one else listens to. Over the years I've been convinced that no one in my set has heard of, or listened to, Comsat Angels, Trashcan Sinatras, Leisure Society, The Silver Seas and many, many others. I've wanted to put that right, sometimes I'm sure to their irritation or apathy but occasionally equal passion from them.

Each week I'll include the taster tracks in a Pop In the Real World Spotify playlist This week's playlist is:

I also feel it's a little dishonest when name acts ( who for now, nevertheless, will remain nameless) routinely receive 4 or 5 star reviews for work which may be OK but falls short of their best work and short of the work of lesser known acts released at the same time. If I'm investing time to listen to an album I'll look for the positives, but if their album is just OK, that's the mark it merits.

This week's review is a slightly shorter on for two reasons. First, I've been listening to some of the new Christmas releases. Although some of our neighbours have had their lights and Merry Christmas signs out for a couple of weeks, I'll summarise these nearer the day. Secondly, I slept in one day this week and missed my dedicated listening slot. Well that happens when you listen to pop in the real world!

It's been a week of excellent pop confections as I hope you'll agree.

Album of the Week

Got To Be Tough : Toots and the Maytals

Toots Hibbert's death, possibly from COVID-19, came shortly after this album was released. I've come to this without much previous experience of Toots and the Maytals, or reggae for that matter. It's pretty much limited to the Clash's cover of 'Pressure Drop' on the B side of English Civil War.

Now, it sends a strong message if the Clash at their peak wanted to cover your songs. It sets you up to expect social commentary, some anger and something that is credible musically. Now that's all here but I was not prepared for the joyous sound of most of the tracks. This is social messaging allied to party horns. The emphasis is on freedom not issues, and that includes the freedom to have a good time.

In places they sound midway between Bob Marley and Earth, Wind and Fire. 'Just Brutal', 'Warning, Warning' and, best of all, 'Freedom Train lead the way here. Opener 'Drop Off Head' has a reggae blues feel. There's a poignant tenderness in 'Good Thing When You Call' reminding you that this is reggae from an aged perspective and that's emphasised in the gravelly voice. Ziggy Marley collaborates on the cover of 'Three Little Birds' helping to keep it in the Marley family while passing the song and its message down the generations. It's a harder, compelling version, dragging the listener back to optimism from a darker place and it becomes a song for the times as a result.

It's a fitting legacy for Toots Hibbert, and it's nudged me towards exploring the Toots and the Maytals back catalogue in more detail. What more can you hope for from a record?

Taster Track : Freedom Train


Moveys : Slow Pulp

I haven't heard anything that has reminded me as much of Elliott Smith for a long time. And if, for the most part, these songs are a little one paced what's happening away from the foreground creates interest and elevates the songs into something special. Throughout there are little touches and embellishments that stick with you - the glockenspiel sounding notes of 'Trade It' and, particularly, the rather lovely steel guitar and harmonica of 'Montana'.

There are two exceptions to the overall tone and sound of this album. One is the instrumental 'Whispers (In the Outfield)' which works well. The other is the closing title track which is so different from anything that has gone before that it stands to one side and could be by a different band altogether. These are encouraging signs of the potential to grow as a band in different directions for the future.

Taster Track : Montana

Wake UP! : Hazel English

Well, this was a pleasant, pepped up surprise. It's one of the best out and out pop albums I've heard all year.

That's not to dismiss it as lightweight. There are heavy issues sung about here, but it's good that these issues and anxieties can be covered accessibly and with a light touch without losing their impact. The trick has been to wrap these issues in warm, catchy songs washed in a restorative pop sheen. There's a neat understanding of what's worked down the years. 'Like A Drug' starts with a Phil Spector drum beat shorn of his wall of sound. There's not much around like this that's not overtly pointed at the charts and that's refreshing. In a just world though, the tracks here deserve to be monster hits.

Taster Track : Shaking

As Found : Fugu

I'm indebted to a friend, Chris Ford, for this recommendation from 2005 which I loved. This French band provide happy, chirrupy, sunshine guitar based pop that is in turns sweet, innocent and naive. It's timeless, but there's not much like this around at the moment.

The fugu is a highly toxic fish, more deadly than cyanide, that needs to be prepared carefully before serving as a Japanese delicacy. One taste of Fugu, the band, and you'll be hooked. (Boom boom!)

Taster Track : Straight From the Heart

Good Job

The Land of Pure Imagination : Roger Joseph Manning Jr

This joyous collection drills deep into the well of 70s pop of the type perfected by Nilsson, Billy Swan and the poppiest parts of 10CC. Theres also a feel of Tears For Fears in the song structures. There's an uncanny resemblance in the voice to the singer in an early 00s Rough Trade band, Hal to the extent that I checked it wasn't the same singer. It isn't but if you like this, try Hal's self titled album too.

Taster Track : Wish It Would Rain

Songs From the Kitchen Disco : Sophie Ellis-Bextor

Sophie Ellis-Bextor had a good first lockdown, consolidating her claim to be one of the nicest people in pop by broadcasting her Kitchen Discos on Instagram and You Tube. I missed these at the time, but had a look before writing this. They are a surreal experience. Mum Sophie dancing and singing her hits and various covers, while encouraging and keeping an eye on five kids. They made me smile in a somewhat disbelieving way but I'm glad they've triggered a new Greatest Hits compilation, named after the lockdown broadcasts.

The thing is, if you follow chart pop at all you'll know what to expect. It's generic, radio friendly material and sometimes a bit of dispensable, cheery cheese is just what you need. The most interesting tracks are the covers. New Order's 'True Faith' is fairly faithful to the original. Pulp's 'Do You Remember the First Time?' gains a new dimension from losing the Jarvis personality. It's hard to dislike without being in the slightest way essential. In other words it's classic pop.

Taster Track : Today The Sun's On Us

The Last Glam In Town : Rossall

I came to pop in 1973. The first single that really lodged in my brain as an addiction came the next year - Angel Face by The Glitter Band. It was the essence of glam - pounding drums, ridiculous outfits, handclaps, blaring sax and lots of unironic 'Heys'. John Rossall played saxophone in that incarnation of the band.

He's back in his own right, and he's released a completely unreconstituted glam album. This could have turned up in a time capsule from 1974. If you liked it then, you'll like it now.

At a distance of 45 years, and shorn of the distraction of competing for a good seat in front of the TV, while fending off parental questions about whether or not there was a man under all that make up, it strikes me just how close this supposedly new musical genre followed the 1958 rock and roll template.

Taster Track : Blackpool Rocks

A Strange Dream : Smokescreens

This short album also looks back and wears its influences proudly and appealingly on its sleeve. This time it's the C86 generation of jangling indie pop. It's slight, minor, never twee and it's done very well.

There is a wealth of C86 and C86 influenced indie material from the likes of Marina and Sarah records to draw on. The Smokescreens would be at home in that company.

Taster Track : Working Title

Curate's Egg

TRIP : Lambchop

Lambchop is an acquired taste, primarily due to Kurt Wagner. His whispered voice and occasional falsetto are hardly the stuff of hit records; his on stage persona is muted to the point of invisibility. But when it all comes together, such as on Grumpus from 'breakthrough' album 'Nixon' it has an astonishingly emotional and moving effect.

This americana / alternative country album won't win any new fans, but it has glimpses of what can make Lambchop special.There's generosity in the backstory too, depending on which reviews you read. My take from those is that, recognising a 2020 tour wasn't going to happen, he invited his band to suggest and record cover versions of songs in order to provide them with some income in a difficult year.

Musically this is a subdued album, best listened to alone. It shows a band united in a common vision of what they should sound like but it's quite a difficult listen. The cover of the Supreme's 'Love Is Here And Now You're Gone' is slightly weird, and the extended 10 minute electronic, ambient coda to 'Reservations' requires a bit of patience. But the vocal line in 'Reservations' is gorgeous, and the background guitar in 'Where Grass Won't Grow' adds beauty.

The remaining songs don't quite take off. They're like a rose that's beginning to come to full bloom, or a butterfly in the process of breaking out of its chrysalis. So near, and yet so far.

Taster Track : Where Grass Won't Grow

I'll Pass. Thanks

We're on a roll people - second week in a row there no dodgy entries. (That's 'dodgy' with a lower case 'd', not 'Dodgy' with a capital 'D'!)

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